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Cowboys' Leon Lett On 'One Of The Worst Days Of My NFL Career'

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

In professional sports, a split-second decision can cost the team a game, Boston's Bill Buckner missing a routine ground ball during the World Series, DeSean Jackson dropping the football a yard before crossing the goal line. Then there was the blunder on Thanksgiving Day in 1993 when the Miami Dolphins played the Dallas Cowboys. NPR's Daniel Hajek has the story.

DANIEL HAJEK, BYLINE: The Cowboys defensive tackle Leon Lett made a big mistake that haunts him 22 years later.

LEON LETT: I avoided talking about it. I avoided dealing with it. It was just one of the worst days of my NFL career.

HAJEK: It was a freezing day in Irving, Texas. Winds blew sheets of snow and sleet into the Texas Stadium. Players were falling and fumbling like they were on an ice skating rink. This was when Troy Aikman was the Cowboys' star quarterback, and the Dolphins were led by legendary coach Don Shula. It was the Thanksgiving showdown. With 15 seconds left in the game, Miami was down by one. All they needed was a field goal. It was the Dolphins last shot at winning. Miami kicked the ball, and the Dallas defensive line reached up to block it. You can hear it in this clip posted by the NFL. It's a big play.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: It's a 41-yarder. It's a first down kick, and it's blocked. It's blocked and rolling around...

HAJEK: The stadium erupts. The blocked football spins like a top on the snow-packed field. The announcers yell, Cowboys win. Then all of a sudden, a white jersey, a Dallas player, Leon Lett, number 78, appears out of nowhere.

LETT: I'm not making any excuses. I think I kind of got the rules mixed up there. You know, I just kept hustling, trying to make a play.

HAJEK: As the Dallas sideline celebrated, Lett thinks the play is still going, and he headed straight for the ball. If he touches it, the football is back in play, a huge mistake when the Cowboys are a mere seconds from winning. But, Lett didn't just touch the ball.

LETT: I was all out, full speed, down the field, and I ended up sliding into it.

HAJEK: He slipped on the ice and accidentally kicked it. He lost control of the football. It was an all-out scramble to recover it as the Cowboys victory hung in the balance.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Yeah, oh, Leon Lett, oh.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Oh, Leon Lett, Leon Lett, oh, my goodness gracious.

HAJEK: Worst possible outcome, Miami recovers the ball, and that's exactly what happened. Dolphins center Jeff Dellenbach was right there.

JEFF DELLENBACH: I just caught him kind of out of my peripheral vision, you know. So he's probably about next to me when he came diving in there, and instincts were to get on the ball.

HAJEK: And just like that, with three seconds left, the Dolphins get another shot at scoring. This time, the field goal is good. Miami wins the Thanksgiving game 16-14, and Leon Lett has been blamed ever since.

LETT: Of course, my teammates and the coaching staff were all upset, and I could understand that. And I was upset. I had basically messed it up for the entire team.

HAJEK: Lett went to the locker room devastated, but one bad play doesn't define a season. The Dallas Cowboys went on to win the Super Bowl that year. Leon Lett became a decorated defensive tackle, and he's still with the Cowboys as an assistant defensive line coach. The first thing he tells his players, if your team blocks a field goal, don't touch the ball. Daniel Hajek, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.